Pious and Secular America

Back in 1958 Reinhold Niebuhr published a collection of essays which he titled, Pious and Secular America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958).  The first essay has the same title of the book, and I found it to be quite thought-provoking and penetrating.  Notice the depth of these quotes.

“…Here we are in the 20th century, at once the most religious and the most secular of Western nations.  How shall we explain this paradox?  Could it be that we are most religious partly in consequence of being the most secular culture?  That would add a special depth to the paradox.”

“Our secularism is of two varieties.  [1] There is a theoretic secularism which dismisses ultimate questions about the meaning of existence, partly because it believes that science has answered these questions and partly because it regards the questions as unanswerable or uninteresting. [2] There is a practical secularism, which expresses itself in the pursuit of the immediate goals in life.”

“We are somewhat embarrassed by the fact that we are the first culture which is in danger of being subordinated to its economy.  We have to live as luxuriously as possible in order to keep our productive enterprise from stalling.”

In this fine article, Niebuhr also goes on to discuss how the Enlightenment and evangelical Christianity merged on the Western frontier which resulted in political and religious sentimentality: “The heaven of evangelical Christianity and the utopia of the Enlightenment were…blended on the frontier.”  I’ll have to blog on that at a different time.  Meanwhile, I recommend finding this article and reading it if you’re interested in this religiously secular reading of American history.  You’ll appreciate this article if you like the works of David Wells, George Marsden, Michael Horton, or Stephen Nichols, just to name a few.

shane lems